ST. PETERSBURG — What began as an exercise in civil society Monday evening ended in mayhem. Now organizers are wondering whether they can ensure city candidates will be heard by voters at future forums — and not shouted down by unruly protestors.
A candidate forum at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront Hotel dissolved into a shoving match between supporters of the International People's Democratic Uhuru movement and other attendees. Officers had to clear out the hotel ballroom, cutting short the time mayoral and city council candidates had to debate each other in front of the public.
That has left many wondering how to conduct future election events, and whether the candidates themselves — including mayoral frontrunners Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker — will be able to debate each other without disruption.
"It sort of stifled democracy last night," said the League of Women Voters' Raechel Garafalo, whose group sponsored Monday's forum. "It was more of a demonstration that it was a forum."
Garafalo said she's consulting with community members to create a game plan for future forums. They want to avoid a repeat of Monday's fiasco where League moderators pleaded in vain for Uhurus and others to stop chanting from the crowd. They shouted down every other mayoral and council candidate save for two: mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel, who has been endorsed by the Uhurus, and Uhuru member and council hopeful Eritha "Akile" Cainion.
"Last night was unfortunate, but this isn't our first rodeo. We've been doing these events for nearly 100 years," Garafalo said. "I'm confident and committed to providing a forum that provides better and more civil discourse than what happened last night."
The next mayoral forum will be held Thursday evening at Greater Mount Zion AME Church in Midtown. The League of Women Voters will moderating another forum for the City Council District 6 candidates on July 17 at City Hall. Then the mayoral candidates will gather there July 18 for another forum.
St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Jim Previtera declined to go into specifics over what security measures might be in place at City Hall next week, but he said police must balance free speech with public safety.
"We certainly don't want to have to become involved in these forums unless there is criminal behavior," Previtera said. "The reality of the matter is that free speech is important, we don't want to do anything to inhibit it. But speech crosses a line when it is threatening or results in any physical violence."
While Monday's forum ended in chaos, he said, it did not cross that line:
"From the officers who were there, they felt like it was more unruly behavior and that the decision to terminate the forum probably prevented it from escalating."
The Downtown Neighborhood Association organized the forum. Paul Carder, an association director, said they had few good options left before deciding to end the abbreviated 37-minute debate before candidates could give their closing statements.
"The audience was there to hear the candidates, not to hear 30 to 40 people scream all the time," Carder said. "Someone suggested we cut the microphone from the candidates whose supporters were disrupting the event.
"Quite honestly, I think that would just incite more bad behavior. I thought maybe the candidates themselves might say something — (Rick) Baker tried to— just to ask the crowd, in the interest of fair play and free speech."
When Baker, a former mayor, asked that the other candidates to be allowed to speak, Nevel interjected: "People hate you."
Mayor Rick Kriseman didn't make an appeal for order, but suffered his share of insults as well.
While on stage, mayoral candidate Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter argued with a spectator. That led to the shoving in the crowd that ultimately cut the debate short. The next day, she also had the harshest words for the group and its founder, Omali Yeshitela.
"Omali and them have been doing that for years," she said. "It's gotten old. I was ready to really have a dialogue. That's what's been missing from the campaign."
The Uhurus did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, at the Palladium Theater on Tuesday, confusion reigned on the first day of free tickets for the July 25 debate sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 along with the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College.
Uhuru supporters arrived 3½ hours before tickets were to be distributed, said Cainion. She said theater employees told her shortly before noon that debate sponsor Bay News 9 hadn't arrived with the tickets. Instead, anyone wanting to attend the debate wrote down their contact information to reserve their first-come, first-served spot.
"They don't want the poor, working class black community in here to raise these issues to Rick and Rick, and that's exactly what happened yesterday," Cainion said as she stood on the steps of the theater, surrounded by Uhuru members.
Nevel, who has protested his exclusion from the debate, also criticized the way debate tickets were being handled.
"We have a right to be in this debate, we're demanding that," Nevel said. "You had a bunch of people waiting out here in the hot sun ... absolute disrespect for the people."
Times spokeswoman Sherri Day said details for the televised debate are still being finalized.
"We're discussing our plans with our partners to make sure the debate is successful," she said. "We'll provide updated information when we have it."
Greater Mount Zion AME Pastor Clarence Williams said he doesn't fear a repeat of Monday's chaos at his church's forum Thursday. Nor does he plan to ask for more security. He said he respects the Uhurus and they have returned that respect. He also doesn't want the event to look like it's being held in a "police state."
"It's a very intense time," the pastor said. "The nation is charged. It's to be expected. Sometimes it can spiral out of control if you're not able to direct it and capture that energy and make it productive."
He added: "I think I'll have a little more homefield advantage than the Hilton Bayfront ballroom."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.